Sudanese journalist tells of harassment by ‘brutal’ security forces

“Whenever I’m interrogated I’m always told the same thing – ‘we are ready to kill you when we want, and where we want. It’s just a matter of time.” – Faisal ElbagirIn more than 20 years working as a journalist in Sudan, Faisal Elbagir has lost count of the number of times he has been detained or interrogated for his work. Yet the last time it happened, he sensed that his life was in immediate danger.The interrogation took place in Elbagir’s office in February 2009, just before Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir had been issued with an arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Sudanese authorities responded to the ruling by stepping up their repression of political opponents. It meant human rights activists across the country were being paid visits by feared ‘National Security’ agents.”After the arrest warrant, the head of security announced that those supporting the ICC would not be allowed to live, that they were ‘betraying the nation’. He said he would cut their hands and cut their ears,” Elbagir told Amnesty International on Monday from Geneva, where he is lobbying the United Nations to keep a human rights expert in Sudan.”The day before I left Sudan, I was questioned and told I was an ‘enemy’. The message was very clear: they were either going to put me in prison on false charges, by saying I was passing information to the ICC, or they were going to assassinate me.”Elbagir fled to a neighbouring country, leaving behind his wife and son, along with the political journalism career that had been his life for more than two decades. This week, he is urging the UN not to remove its Independent Expert from Sudan. He hopes a continued monitoring presence in the country will help end the clampdown on freedom of expression that forced him out of his home.”It’s difficult to explain how it feels to leave. Since I was first detained, in 1989, I’ve been doing my best to stay. I believe the best place for a journalist or human rights activist is to work inside his or her country. So when you are forced to flee, it cuts your heart,” he says. “It’s not just me, any human rights defender unlucky enough to fall into the hands of National Security gets the same. But on the other hand I am lucky, as I haven’t lost my life – yet. Many others have.”At least 23 people have been arrested and interrogated by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) for their human rights or political activities in north Sudan so far this year, including 4 journalists. On 11 February, student Mohamed Moussa Abdallah Bahr el Din was found dead, with traces of torture, the day after being arrested by NISS agents outside his university in Khartoum. In May, two journalists from the Rai Al Shaab newspaper were reportedly tortured while in NISS detention.Elbagir is the General Secretary of the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Development, which was shut down after President Al Bashir’s arrest warrant was issued. He is also the Sudanese correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. Since leaving, the threats against Elbagir have continued, while he lives in fear for the welfare of his family.”I’m still not 100 per cent safe. I still receive regular calls from security agents, asking me where I am, what I’m doing and telling me they can reach me wherever I am,” says Elbagir.”We are facing a brutal institution – National Security – so we can never be sure that our families will not pay for our activities. This is psychological torture.” Despite the risks, Elbagir is committed to continuing his fight for human rights in his homeland. He hopes his visit to Geneva will be a step towards improving the human rights situation in Sudan, especially by paving the way for free voting in the south Sudan independence referendum in January 2011.”The UN human rights bodies need to help because we’ve just had rigged elections and soon there will be an important referendum. The people there need to be able to decide freely. Right now, they are not allowed that right,” said Elbagir. “I will continue to work because I have done nothing wrong, so I will not hide. I’m not afraid of being killed, I have to live my life. And my life is human rights and freedom of expression. So I’m optimistic. And I have to keep my optimism to continue my struggle.”I still have great hope for Sudan, and that one day I’ll be going back home. This dictatorship and oppression of the people will not continue forever. One day, the sun will rise in Sudan.”